Conway developer attributes success to mentors

By Tammy Keith Originally Published March 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 15, 2013 at 11:18 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Hal Crafton looks over plans in his office at Rush-Hal Properties in Conway. Crafton’s love for the city is legendary among his friends and family. His business partner, Rush Harding III, said that when Crafton had a heart attack a few years ago in another town and was being airlifted, Crafton said, “If I’m going to die, I want to die in Conway,” and insisted on being taken to Conway Regional Medical Center instead of Little Rock.

— Make no mistake about it. Hal Crafton knows big wood from kindlin’.

Crafton, 56, a lifelong Conway resident, said that phrase was his late father’s favorite.

Crafton interpreted what the phrase means to him: “Know what’s important and what’s not.”

Awards, like the Distinguished Service Award the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce presented to him this month, are not high on the list.

“I don’t like awards,” he said.

It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the thought, but they make him uncomfortable, just like crowds, giving speeches or putting on airs.

It just isn’t how he was raised.

The road to being a successful real estate developer was paved by his grandparents, his parents and his brother, he said, each of whom taught him something.

“I’ve had the greatest mentors,” he said. “I’d like to think my grandparents and my dad were proud of me, and my brother. They had a lot to do with it.”

He gets emotional when he talks about his family as he sits behind the desk in his cluttered office of Rush-Hal Properties.

To know what he thinks is important, his walls tell stories, too.

Prominently displayed is a watercolor of the second downtown location of the United Motor Co. dealership, which his grandfather Leo Crafton Sr. started managing in 1916 and bought about 1920; an ad that shows his grandfather Edward Halter Sr.’s picture; a picture of himself in New York City for the first time, looking up at the skyscrapers in a golly-gee moment; his duck-hunting buddies and him; a framed Bible verse, Proverbs 22:9: “He who is generous will be blessed”; and a big city map.

The impact Crafton has made on Conway is huge — throw a dart at that map, and he likely developed an apartment complex, a golf course or duplex near it.

He made that impact with his partner Rush Harding III of Little Rock, who roomed with him at the University of Central Arkansas while Crafton lasted, before he gave in to full-time business ventures.

“My best education wasn’t at UCA, I promise you. The best education is real life, and I had some great teachers,” he said.

He learned walking as a child beside his beloved grandfather Halter, fixing a fence, planting trees or a garden.

Halter also influenced Crafton’s desire to develop land.

“He loved land. He loved buying old farms. … He’d owner-finance one,” Crafton said.

His grandfather was a founder of the original First State Bank and owned City Lumber.

“He retired when I was about 6 or 7, so I was his sidekick,” Crafton said.

The pair would pick corn, enough to fill the back of a pickup, and the women would shuck the corn.

His grandfather shared the bounty of his garden with the community and made wine.

Halter was a “good Catholic,” Crafton said.

“I’m going to say he gave me my work ethic,” Crafton said.

“That was a good life,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’ve just been so blessed.”

He said his father, the late Leo “Hippo” Crafton Jr., was a role model, too.

“In my lifetime, I can probably remember my dad missing two days of work,” he said.

Seldom seen without a cigar in his mouth, the elder Crafton never met a stranger.

“He was a character,” Crafton said. “He was bigger than life.”

Crafton said he can remember his father going to the bank and stopping to talk to a janitor with the same interest he did the bank president.

“He didn’t like airs,” Crafton said.

Crafton said his late mother, Dorothy Crafton, “was the glue” that held the family together.

His grandfather Crafton was a tie-wearing, all-business Baptist whose life was the car dealership.

Older brother Leo III was a teacher in a whole different way.

While many brothers ignore their younger siblings, Crafton said of Leo, “[He] threw me in the back seat and took me everywhere.

“I grew up fast. One time when I was a sophomore, Leo blew in, and he was in college, and he said, ‘What are you doing tonight?’”

When the 15-year-old Crafton told him he didn’t know, Leo told him.

“He said, ‘You’re going to the Pike Diamond something,” Crafton recalled.

“I was 15 years old, and he dressed me up and took me to my first college party, and I got my eyes opened up,” Crafton said.

Leo III, a dentist in Conway, “is the real deal,” he said. “He’s solid as a rock.”

His brother never was interested in the family car business, Crafton said.

Crafton, however, worked in service, was parts-department manager and sold cars.

He started developing

property part time in the days before cellphones, but he carried a pager.

“I’d carry around 10 or 20 dimes in my pocket,” he said. “My pager would just be going off, going off, going off, and that’s when pay phones were everywhere.”

The calls were from the dealership.

“If Dad called twice, you’d better go to a pay phone,” he said.

His dad believed in being hands-on with the dealership — a Crafton needed to unlock the door every day and be on site. Joe White, who worked at the dealership with the late Clarence White, his father, was considered family, Crafton said. Joe White took over running the business in the late ’90s, Crafton said.

The Craftons sold the dealership in 2004.

White, 69, said Crafton is deserving of any honors that come his way.

White started working at the dealership at the same time as Crafton, more than 30 years ago.

“He’s a focused, intense person,” White said. “I think one reason he’s been so successful is his work ethic, but he has a feel for the community of Conway and a vision that has benefitted him and that also has benefitted this community. He’s definitely had an impact on the growth of western Conway. When he does something, he does what he feels is in the best interest of everyone.

“He started out on a very small, limited scale. I saw him actually finishing homes early on himself, after hours,” White said.

Crafton said that when he needed a partner to buy land in 1990, he called Harding, who he said is “brilliant.”

Harding, CEO of Crews & Associates, said he didn’t know anything about developing, but he told Crafton, “I believe in you.”

The first subdivision Crafton and Harding developed in 1990 was St. Charles Place at Salem Road and Tyler Street.

“Conway was just taking off,” Crafton said, and there hadn’t been a new subdivision in years.

They went across Tyler Street and developed the Krooked Kreek and Royal Oaks subdivisions from there. They built their first rental duplexes in west Conway in 1992 and kept going.

Crafton developed golf courses —The Greens at Nutters Chapel, Centennial Valley Country Club and The Links at Cadron Valley — with partner Jim Lindsey of Fayetteville.

Two are public courses, and “I’m proud of that,” Crafton said.

Like his father taught him, Crafton runs his business in a hands-on manner as much as possible.

“I try to drive through and around every apartment complex, every duplex, every week,” he said.

On Sunday afternoons, Crafton said, he likes to drive up and down the side streets in the residential area of downtown Conway.

“I’d love to see not only downtown commercial (areas) being revitalized, but the residential part,” he said. “I love old Conway.”

Crafton said he understands the need for a historical district, but he feels strongly that some old homes can’t be restored, and they’re becoming an eyesore.

“I’d like to clean up downtown, not for elitists, but to keep it from deteriorating,” he said.

“I’d love to see that catch a second wind in life.”

Harding described his longtime friend and business partner as “humble and quiet,” but also as a “fierce competitor.”

“The thing that continues to amaze me about Hal is, one, his work ethic is as strong and domineering today as it was 30 years ago,” Harding said. “His commitment to try to do things the right way just grows and grows and grows. He loves Conway so much that he really does put the interest of the people higher than ours sometimes.”

Harding said Crafton admires “the blue-collar guy who gets up and goes to work every day.”

“He’s not one for oxford suits, striped shirts and moussed-up hair.”

Harding said Crafton treats everyone with respect.

“Talk about people who will line up and go to war for him,” Harding said of the bricklayers and framers who work for Crafton. “The primary reason they’re so loyal is he treats all of them with respect and treats them like he wants to be treated.”

Being a developer means being a target for criticism, too.

“I love it — nobody makes me do it, but there are a lot of challenges and a lot more regulatory issues,” Crafton said.

One of the biggest challenges he faced was in 1998 when he was developing another phase of the Victoria Park subdivision in west Conway and disturbed nesting egrets.

“I remember where I was — I was at a meeting at Pam McDowell’s (a Realtor),” he said.

Crafton got a phone call that informed him there were birds he needed to come see. Right then.

“I’m thinking, ‘What’s the deal?’ I’m picturing them like blackbirds,” he said.

The birds were cattle egrets, and the development had disturbed a rookery — in pine trees that Crafton had planted 10 years before.

“There were thousands of them,” he said.

One day he didn’t know anything about egrets; the next he was involved in a controversy over disturbing them.

“It happened that quick,” he said, snapping his fingers.

“We just paid the fine,” he said, and he’s not bitter. “I’ve had a lot of good things happen, but it was a good learning curve.”

When people get upset that trees are cleared for development, “I respect that,” he said.

“I’m a tree planter,” Crafton said. “My grandfather Halter believed in planting trees. I’ve probably planted 10,000 trees in Conway. It may be 20,000, I don’t know.”

He is unashamed of his love for the city.

Crafton said he tried to get his 29-year-old daughter, Haley Fowler, to name her son Conway.

She named her now 2-year-old Crafton, instead.

He showed a picture of the toddler.

“It’s better than everybody says it is,” Crafton said of being a grandfather.

Crafton is also a newlywed.

He smiled when asked about the shiny ring on his left hand.

“We ran off to Las Vegas,” he said of his wedding this month to Sena Lovette.

Of course, he came back home.

“I knew Conway when it was 14,000, 15,000, and I loved it,” he said. “The difference is, it’s 60,000, and I still love it.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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